Last Friday, the United Nations refugee agency said 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have crossed the border since the Myanmar army launched clearance operations in northern Rakhine State on August 25, following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on police posts.
The violence has also forced several thousand Rakhine Buddhists and Hindus to flee their homes. Fortunately or unfortunately, international news has emphasised the plight of the Rohingya, who are stateless and considered among the world’s most persecuted people.
The Rohingya conundrum has two important dimensions – the international community’s approach and that of the government in Myanmar.
The recent upsurge in violence has led government leaders, heads of international organisations and Nobel laureates to speak up, including UN secretary general António Guterres and Nobel Peace Prize recipients Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai.
The core of the conundrum lies in identity. The government of Myanmar and a majority of the population, including the Rakhine Buddhists, call them illegal Bengali immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. But Bangladesh is not willing to accept them; Bangladeshi security forces have forced back many of the Rohingya who fled there, and its government has contemplated temporarily resettling the Rohingya to a low-lying island in the country, in a move that has been condemned.
The international community is unable to find a solution. For example, Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have been vocal in criticising the Myanmar government but reluctant to take the Rohingya in large numbers. The United Nations has also been vocal about their plight, but unable to find countries to resettle the refugees.
Partly because it is the largest democracy and home to the second-largest Muslim population, many hoped that India would come forward, but this is unlikely to happen, as the Indian government is considering the deportation of illegal foreigners, including 40,000 Rohingya. India is also wary of taking a strong stance on the issue because it does not want a strained relationship with Myanmar when New Delhi is trying to enhance its presence and influence there, and Southeast Asia as a whole, through its Act East Policy. There are also concerns in India that Islamic terrorist groups may expand through some hardline Rohingya.
While the international community has criticised the entire Myanmar government, the de facto leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been singled out. The heavy criticism of her is largely because of exceedingly high expectations when the NLD government assumed office after decades of military rule. Suu Kyi has been criticised for reticence in speaking out for the Rohingya, and taking no substantive measures to address the long-standing issue, including on identity and citizenship.
But many ignore or play down the political system in Myanmar. Suu Kyi is prevented from holding the office of the presidency. Also, her NLD government has a power-sharing agreement with the powerful military, which controls the three most important security ministries. As such, the military can simply choose to not cooperate with the NLD-led civilian government. The possibility of another military takeover cannot be completely ruled out if there is a threat to national sovereignty or territorial integrity.
Instead of directing all anger and frustration toward Suu Kyi and the NLD government, the international community, including the UN and powerful Western democracies, should put pressure on the military leadership, particularly Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to end the violence and work towards achieving a peaceful solution.
Suu Kyi and her NLD government should work with the military, community leaders of both Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, and the international community, to resolve the crisis. And the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army should halt its attacks on security forces.
A long-lasting solution should focus on implementing the Kofi Annan-led state advisory commission’s recommendations, including the removal of segregation or barriers between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, and expediting the citizenship verification process for the Rohingya.
Meanwhile, moderate leaders from both sides of the communities – Rohingya and Rakhine – should seek to build mutual trust and the spirit of peaceful coexistence.
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is assistant professor and executive director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, India